Why My Piece of Paper Isn’t Just a Piece of Paper

Today, I received the official document from Biola University stating that I have successfully completed their Certificate Program in Christian Apologetics.  The required course work included three modules, each of which contained eight lectures and study outlines by some of the top apologists, Christian philosophers, and Bible teachers of our generation.  Each lecture was centered around key apologetic issues, topics, and tactics that are relevant to defending the Christian faith in modern times.  With a total of twenty-four two-hour lectures, followed by a series of exams for each one (totaling somewhere around sixty hours of work), I am ecstatic to be able to say, “With the Lord’s help, I passed!”  And today, I received the piece of paper that will be framed and hung on my wall to prove my accomplishment.

A piece of paper framed and hung on a wall.  Why would someone want to do that?  I mean, it is a really nice piece of paper.  It even has a gilded border around it and is signed by Craig Hazen, a leading apologist and director of the program.  But does it really represent anything tangible to the kingdom of God?  Some may argue that it does not because it is just a piece of paper with ink on it.  In fact, many voices staunchly argue that such certificates of achievement, including ministerial recognitions are to be shunned lest one fall into a false sense of prideful security and find oneself being eternally tormented in the flames of the lake of fire beside those certificates of achievement.  I beg to differ.

First of all, what my piece of paper does NOT represent…

First of all, let me be clear on this one point.  Christian education does not equate to Christian salvation.  Knowing about the kingdom of God does not guarantee one’s entrance into the kingdom of God.  Salvation is a matter of the Spirit’s work in the heart and life of a lost soul.  While the knowledge of Christ definitely plays a part in the salvation process, for “how will they believe in Him whom they have not heard”, knowledge alone cannot save our rebellious souls.  Time and time again in Jesus’ earthly ministry, He pointed this out to the learned elite in Israel.  The scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees all had great credentials when it came to the knowledge of God’s Word, but most failed to recognize the kingdom when it came knocking on their door via Jesus Christ.  One instance that comes to mind was a certain late night meeting our Lord had with Nicodemus to talk theology.

Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  John 3:3 (NASB95)

This straight forward statement throws Nicodemus for a loop. He replies with more than a bit of bewilderment at Jesus’ statement with a barrage of questions centered around, “How can this be?”  Being the Good Shepherd, He patiently answers his confusion. Then, after thoroughly addressing his concerns, Jesus asks him a question, saying,

“Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things?  John 3:10 (NASB95)

Well, yes, Nicodemus was a great teacher of Israel.  In fact, he belonged to the group known as the Pharisees.  On top of that, he was recognized as a ruler of the Jews, which probably meant he was associated with the wise Sanhedrin Council.  He was not a lightweight among the educated elite in Jerusalem.  He most likely had the right educational credentials which elevated him to one of the top statuses among God’s chosen people – a teacher.  Yet, he didn’t have a clue what Jesus meant by “being born again.”

A Gift is not an Achievement

May we never forget what the Lord says to us in Ephesians 2:8-9 regarding the work of our salvation, namely that it is not a work at all but a gift.

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.  Ephesians 2:8–9 (NASB95)

The good work of gaining knowledge (even the knowledge of God) apart from having a relationship with God, is nothing more than that…a good work.  While the term “good work” may sound appealing by human standards, it means something entirely different in heavenly terms.  Scripture is very clear about how filthy our works are apart from Christ.  Works we may deem as good, no matter how noble one’s intentions may be, are soiled, ugly, and empty in the eyes of the Lord if they are performed apart from Him; outside of His regenerating Spirit within us.  Our works cannot save us or make us holy.  In fact, they just prove how unholy we are.

Paul recognized this when he contemplated the credentials of his very accomplished, very significant heritage.

although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.  Philippians 3:4–6 (NASB95)

And furthermore, concerning his noteworthy education, he says,

I am a Jew…educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God just as you all are today.  Acts 22:3 (NASB95)

Paul had the right heritage according to the flesh.  Paul had the best education under one of the most prestigious master rabbis in Israel. Yet, despite having a great zeal for God in these things, Paul recognizes that apart from Christ, all of it was empty.  He sums it up by saying,

But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ  Philippians 3:7–8 (NASB95)

When Paul finally received a glimpse of who God really was, he willingly gave up everything he had along with everything that had previously served as his identity for a new identity in Christ.  Similarly to the man who was traveling through a field and discovered a priceless hidden treasure, he sold all so that he could obtain the field containing the treasure.  Paul recognized that his new birth into the kingdom of God would not and could not come through his accomplishments.  God is too holy and mankind is too soiled.  Therefore, he willingly laid down his achievements for the salvation that comes only through Jesus Christ.

Therefore, I wholeheartedly concur with scripture that the certification paper I received from Biola has absolutely nothing to do with my eternal salvation.  In fact, I would sincerely agree with Paul in saying that with regards to the value of gaining and knowing Christ, my gilded piece of paper is nothing more than dung. So having cleared the air about any confusion concerning what my piece of paper does not represent, let me share what it does represent and why it is vitally important.

  • My Piece of Paper Represents the Honest Pursuit of the Biblical Knowledge of God

Too often the church is charged with the crime of being shallow and unthinking by the world.  Too often the world is right.  Too many sermons have been preached carrying the persona of ignorance is bliss.  For far too long have we allowed ourselves to have lazy minds for the glory of God, which is no glory at all.  Too often our brains are “checked” at the door of the entrance of the sanctuary of God’s people like an unneeded coat.  Far too often we trade the godly logic of scripture for the superstitious mysterium of the gullible and touchy feely.  Too often, we allow sloppy interpretations of scripture to support and excuse such behavior.

One such passage that is often forced into unspiritual contortions in order to make it conform to our position of ignorance…

Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.  Acts 4:13 (NASB95)

This verse had been used too often to excuse intellectual ignorance.  Yes, they were uneducated.  Yes, they were untrained.  But by whose standards?  The context of this passage tells us that Peter and John were standing before the Sanhedrin Council when this statement was made concerning them.  The Sanhedrin…remember Nicodemus?  Peter and John were uneducated and untrained according to the standards of the Sanhedrin, but not according to the standards of the kingdom.  Remember they had just spent the last three years with Jesus, the Son of God.  They were personally trained by Him through parables, life situations, miraculous examples, and biblical teachings.  They had the Tutor of all tutors instructing them in the knowledge of God and His kingdom night and day.  Many times they had to relearn their lessons, but they were committed to understanding them because Jesus was committed to teaching them, just as I believe He is today.  If we will allow Him.  So maybe they weren’t educated according to the Sanhedrin’s code, but make no mistake about it, they had deep, personal knowledge of the kingdom empowered by the Holy Spirit.

May all followers of Jesus have this same hunger and commitment to the knowledge of God.

  • My Piece of Paper Represents the Obedience of Transforming My Mind for Worship

One of the first passages of scripture I can remember learning as a young Christian was Romans 12:1-2.

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.  Romans 12:1–2 (NASB95)

When I first came to Christ as a young adult, I was a real mess.  From the addictive vices I had adopted to the foolish ways of thinking that I prided myself for, I needed serious transformation.  My body and mind were anything but holy and acceptable, yet God chose to make me that way through His Spirit, by His Son, according to His Word.

The interesting thing about this passage is that it isn’t simply a nice suggestion or a wise piece of advice, it is a command.  Both of the verbs used in verse 2 are Greek imperatives, which is the mood of command [(μὴ συσχηματίζεσθε – do not be conformed) (μεταμορφοῦσθε – be transformed)].  These verbs are commands whereby, the act of submitting our bodies and minds to the transforming power of God becomes an act of obedience.  Furthermore, it is not only an act of obedience, it becomes our spiritual act of worship when we willingly engage in it.

To support this from another angle, let me point out what is said in the Great Commandment given to us by God.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  Matthew 22:37 (NASB95)

Often we talk about the great need to love God with all of our heart.  But rarely do we discuss loving God with all of our mind.  And if we do, it is usually dumbed down to something like we need to think about God a lot.  But I would argue that what we think about God is just as or maybe more important than the quantity of thoughts that go His way.  If we are using our mind to love God but our thoughts of Him are uninformed or are in error or are tainted by sin, then does that really express true love to Him?  I would argue that if it is done in willful, sluggish ignorance of the truth then those thoughts can easily become condemning, idolatrous, and slanderous to the nature of God Almighty, who has been clearly revealed to us in scripture.  On the other hand, loving God with our whole mind, in holy pursuit of the knowledge of Him in an honoring way becomes another instance of worship.  We desperately need to have our minds transformed for this to happen.

  • My Piece of Paper Symbolizes an Historical Marker Honoring the Work of God in My Life

God does amazing things in the lives of His people.  Sometimes they are of such monumental stature that there is no problem of them sticking with you forever.  Other times, if you are like me, my memory is painfully short, and I find myself longing for heaven where my memory will be sharp and the memories clear.  But for now, we have Standing Stones to remind us of the Lord’s goodness; bringing to our hearts and the hearts of others, encouragement and confidence.

Throughout the Old Testament, God instructed His people to set up altars, dig wells, and erect stone structures whereby God’s works could be remembered and rejoiced over.  Often these represented milestones or achievements of the Lord in the lives of His people.  For instance, when Joshua and the Israelites crossed over the Jordan river into the Promised Land, they were commanded to set up twelve stones as a memorial of the work of the Lord.

Now the people came up from the Jordan on the tenth of the first month and camped at Gilgal on the eastern edge of Jericho. Those twelve stones which they had taken from the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal. He said to the sons of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, ‘What are these stones?’ then you shall inform your children, saying, ‘Israel crossed this Jordan on dry ground.’  For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you had crossed, just as the Lord your God had done to the Red Sea, which He dried up before us until we had crossed; that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, so that you may fear the Lord your God forever.”   Joshua 4:19–24 (NASB95)

Just as the Lord acted mightily on behalf of His people under the old covenant, so He continues to act mightily on behalf of His people under the new covenant.  Nothing has changed, He still wants people everywhere to know that He is mighty.  How does He do this?  The same way that He did it thousands of years ago, by working through His chosen people.  Therefore, historical markers serve to bookmark these works in the chapters of the lives of God’s children for all to see His goodness and power.

Work Hard for the Kingdom but Avoid Cheap Posturing

While scripture is very clear that knowing about the kingdom of heaven does not automatically ensure entrance into the kingdom, I do believe that Christian education can equate to Christian effectiveness in the hands of the Lord for the born again, Spirit filled  person.  But in no way should knowledge ever be allowed to lead to self-righteous flaunting.  Hard work for the King of kings is commendable and honorable; selfish posturing is cheap and repulsive.  And one day, it will be judged.  May we all take heed concerning the attitude of our achievements, even those done in His name.

For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work.  1 Corinthians 3:11–13 (NASB95)

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